By Andrew Shi '15, Editor-in-Chief
Additional Reporting by Zachary Zeller '18
Editor's Note: To protect the identities of some of those interviewed, names have been changed. The Possession and sale of Molly is a crime in the state of New York.
Who is Molly?
That's how Chris Watterson described his experience at a foam party in Albany. The blasts of foam were great, as were the scantily clad girls with tight t-shirts, but what truly made the experience for him was the dosage of methylenedioxy-methamphetamine—abbreviated to MDMA and more commonly known as Molly or Ecstasy—coursing through him.
When asked if he will be rolling again soon, he smiles. There's a Halloween rave in two weeks. He's certainly not going sober, and there isn't a more opportune time to take it again.
Molly is a synthetic drug that has been around for quite some time. It was created by chemists at Merck, a pharmaceutical and chemical company, in 1912. In the 70s it began to be used as a recreational drug and was readily adopted by new users. Today, it is also known as the 'rave drug' for its popularity at electronic dance music (EDM) festivals.
According to Professor Hassan Lopez, Director of the Neuroscience Program at Skidmore College, "the basic idea is that MDMA combines aspects of hallucinogens and stimulants. Take amphetamines, a basic stimulant, and combine it was a basic hallucinogen like LSD. Mush those two molecules together and that's what MDMA is."
"There are two main neurotransmitters that it acts upon: dopamine and serotonin. The dopamine side is the stimulant side of it. MDMA increases dopamine levels, and this is associated with the euphoria. Hallucinogenic properties come from the serotonin side of it...MDMA increases serotonin levels and has similar effects as LSD."
At Skidmore, surveys sent out by The Skidmore News and the Office of Health Promotion found that 20 percent of survey respondents have used Molly (or Ecstasy for the latter survey). That is much less than the 65 percent of respondents who have tried marijuana; but according to Jeremy Parker, another user and previous dealer, the difference is shrinking. When asked if the use of Molly is on the rise at Skidmore, he nods. "Certainly more now, more than there has been in the past few years."
The attractiveness of the drug is self-evident: it's a burst of joy and energy in a small pill or pinch of powder, but as this report will discuss, there is the potential psychological and physiological detriment that warrants its status as a Schedule I drug by the FDA, along with LSD and marijuana. This report will also explore further the use of Molly, in general and at Skidmore, the Molly trade at Skidmore, and finally it will consider if the administration needs to worry about its rising popularity and how it could respond.
"As soon as you do it...you take it and you immediately feel pumped up...then you get a little further into it, and the amphetamines kick in before the serotonin. You start to get jumpy, and usually within the first half an hour you feel anxious...then your vision starts to get a little blurred. I usually just get a huge smile curl across my face. Your body starts to get a little tenser –but in a good way—and it feels really good. The rest of the energy kicks in. Everything is beautiful, you're hugging everybody. Once the happy kicks in, you can run forever. I usually just take my shirt off. Everything is beautiful, colors are more rich, people seems much prettier."
That's the long version, according to Parker. The short version is, "there is only pleasure in your body."
The moniker, Ecstasy, is no mistake, nor is the drug's draw.
When asked why people take Molly, Stephen Leahy, a current dealer who would only agree to be interviewed through a series of questions passed on to a third party, had similar things to say. "I think people take it first and foremost because it is pure, unadulterated euphoria. You feel an incredibly deep connection to the people around you."
The unique blend of dopamine and serotonin, stimulant and hallucinogen, provides a powerful kick of pleasure, energy and distortion. One of the reasons it is so popular at raves is the invigorating and unmitigated energy it provides. Colors, courtesy of the standard flashing lights at shows, lend an otherworldly atmosphere. And, of course, the music is more intense—the reason why EDM, known for its already rapid, up-tempo beats and proclivity for high-octane bass, is so popular among Molly users.
Despite Molly being in part a hallucinogen, takers do not need to be concerned about the psychedelic trips experienced on drugs such as LSD or Shrooms, says Professor Lopez. It's "not full blown hallucinations, but altered perceptions, sounds and tastes. Music sounds different, food tastes better, sex feels better."
Like every drug, there are the undesirable effects. When asked why it is dangerous, Professor Lopez replies, "one answer is that it is not dangerous if it is taken in low doses, not repeatedly, and by someone without something such as cardiovascular vulnerabilities...if someone is perfectly healthy and takes a single dose, ninety-nine out of one hundred times there won't be any real danger to that." However, Professor Lopez stresses that Molly taken outside of these restrictions poses potentially grave consequences.
"Another area where people talk about danger is when people take the drug in a particular context," says Professor Lopez. "For example rave culture. You take MDMA and go to a club or a music festival and just dance all day, and you're not drinking enough water and you're overheating and MDMA has this effect on temperature regulation...so what has been seen in some cases is people can get brain damage. Not super common, but can happen."
Leahy, too, stresses the need to consciously stay hydrated, but warns to avoid drinking too much.
Indeed, drinking too much water, says Watterson, is one of the more dangerous side effects of Molly. According to him, most complications come from people who drink too much water, a situation called water poisoning. "When on Molly, drinking water just feels so good," he says. At the recent Halloween rave, his friend spent $80 on water. Water poisoning can lead to the swelling of brain cells, which at first causes mild headaches, but as the situation exacerbates leads to stymied blood flow and excessive pressure on the brain stem. To complicate matters further, Molly increases levels of the Antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which inversely lowers the production of dilute urine, causing water to be retained in the body. Severe water poisoning can result in seizures, brain damage and, sometimes, death.
Another danger, and the danger more potentially serious, is the very effect that people take Molly for. As Leahy puts it, "it temporarily nukes your serotonin levels."
Molly functions in part by communicating to the brain to release serotonin, and the flush of serotonin leaves the brain depleted of the neurotransmitter that is known to regulate happiness and to be related to depression.
"It's the comedown," sighs Parker. "Much worse than an alcoholic hangover." It's also a hangover that can last two to three days.
Leahy advises vitamins which can boost the synthesis of serotonin, such as 5-HTP.
However, while the aftermath of Molly is unpleasant, the real danger comes from taking multiple doses in quick succession.
The average dose of Molly, according to Leahy is .15 grams. Parker says it's .25 grams. "Take .15 first and then .1 later." Molly's effects can wear off after a few hours, and many users will roll a second time to perpetuate the experience.
According to Professor Lopez, "in the literature, people call it stacking. People take a dose, and then four to six hours later, when it's wearing off, they take another dose. Everyone would define that as dangerous. That is not healthy...you're depleting yourself of serotonin...but then your brain runs out of serotonin. Yet then you take another dose, and you tell your brain to release more serotonin, and that puts a certain amount of pressure, not physical pressure, but metabolic pressure, on your brain. And that can damage your neurons."
"Repeated use within a constrained time period is always the most damaging...over the weekend, over the day, I think those are the types of dosage patters that worry people the most."
Professor Lopez says he cannot provide an estimated duration of time that might be considered safe to take Molly again, but Leahy says to space it out by a month at the minimum. Watterson, despite taking it two weeks in a row, says normally he would only take it at most two or three times a year. "It'll fuck you up."
Professor Lopez agrees. "The greater danger, at least from my perspective, and I think most neuroscientists feel this way, is not the acute use, not in the single use, but in the repeated use, by those people who are taking it chronically, even on a weekly basis. That would be potentially very dangerous. There is some research out there that shows that repeated use of MDMA can damage brain tissue."
Studies of primates given MDMA over an extended period of time have shown permanent brain damage. Professor Lopez cites research that has shown heavy MDMA users don't perform well on cognitive and memory tests as compared to heavy marijuana users and heroin addicts.
It's even unclear if Molly's non-addictive quality, one of the most frequently cited benefits of taking it, is factual. Leahy says it isn't addictive, but Parker disagrees. "You can get hooked on it for sure." After a moment's thought, he continues. "I do have one friend that is a genuine Molly addict."
"There are some people who get addicted to MDMA, says Professor Lopez. "But it is not as addictive as other drugs out there, such as heroin, alcohol or nicotine." He places Molly in a fuzzy zone, in the company of other drugs such as marijuana, caffeine and cocaine.
Most users do not have to worry about permanent damage from Molly. For the infrequent taker, addiction, and brain damage is extremely unlikely. Repeated intake within a short span of time can have severe consequences, but even when stacking, users don't usually consume enough to trigger serious complications.
Instead, what may be the greatest danger is taking something that isn't pure MDMA. "What is often found, the vast majority of the time, is that in that dose it’s MDMA plus other stuff, often speed, amphetamines and other stuff that you don't what it is," Professor Hassan says, citing reported police investigations. "Sometimes that mix can be potentially hazardous, too."
"I was having an extremely good time, and then about thirty minutes in I just freeze, and feel this wave of paranoia hit me, and that's when I knew that it had been cut with something else," Watterson says, recalling his Halloween rave. He was fine, but he shares hearsay of users who were sold Molly cut with bath salts (the drug, not the minerals used for bathing), cocaine and even laundry detergent.
"There are completely legal test kits that are sold online and for very cheap that will tell you instantly if what you are taking is real," Leahy says. The problem is, according to Watterson, that if you're above to go raving, you're not going to pull out the chemistry set and safety goggles and run tests on your Molly.
And The Ugly
Testing what's in that white powder may be a nuisance, but it can also save a life. A spate of Molly-related deaths over the summer brought the drug to national attention. The Daily Beast reported instances of Molly being cut with gasoline and baby powder, although this was not the cause of the death for four young adults. Two of them overdosed, one taking six hits, which sent him into a seizure, and ultimately killed him. Another collapsed from overheating and dehydration, and after being rushed to the hospital, was declared dead. Molly-related deaths are very uncommon, but from 2004 to 2011, Emergency Room visits due to the drug's toll increased by 120 percent to over 22,498, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Use at Skidmore certainly does not reflect that meteoric rise, but its popularity is still growing nevertheless.
Some Hard Numbers
In a recent survey sent out by The Skidmore News, we found that nearly 20 percent of students who responded have used Molly at least once. thirty-five percent of those who use it have used it only once, while another 35 percent use it once per year. Fifteen percent of users reported using it more than once per month. Our sample size was 99 students.
Have you ever used Molly (MDMA)
How often do you use Molly (MDMA)?
|I've only ever taken it once||35.00%|
|Once a year||35.00%|
|Once per semester||15.00%|
|Once per month||10.00%|
|Once per week||0.00%|
|More than once per week||5.00%|
When did you first take Molly (MDMA)?
|Before high school||0.00%|
|Between graduation from high school and college||15.00%|
The Neuroscience department sent out a similar survey last year, although they looked at a wider range of drugs. The department's survey had a 45 percent response rate. The department found that 31 percent of students who responded could be considered 'drug users', those who habitually use drugs other than alcohol and marijuana. The remaining 69 percent of the student body could be call 'non-users'. Of the 'drug users', 60 percent used Molly. Only 8.5 percent of 'non users' have experimented with Molly.
In 2013, the Office of Health Promotion also sent out an extensive survey on drugs and alcohol to students. The survey did not include questions on Molly, but did so for Ecstasy. In regard to the data, Director McDonald warns that some disagree about the synonymy of Molly and Ecstasy, and that comparison and extrapolation cannot be made. Some claim that Molly is a purer form of Ecstasy, as Ecstasy can often be laced with other drugs such as caffeine. As discussed, though, so can Molly. Still, the active ingredient in both drugs is MDMA, and many, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, conflate the two. In addition, 161 respondents skipped the first question asking if they have ever tried Ecstasy, which could mean that reported usage rates are not representative of true usage rates. The data collected by the Office of Health Promotion is thus not entirely reflective of the true usage rate of Molly on campus and conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. Despite the flaws of the data, it should be able to provide a general picture of the use of Ecstasy on campus.
The Office of Health Promotion found about 80.4 percent of the respondents reported to have never used Ecstasy. Nineteen percent reported trying it at least once. At the time of the survey, of those who used it, 68.3 percent had used it within the past year, 16 percent in the past month and 3.9 percent in the past week.
The 16 percent of those students who have used Ecstasy in the past month only comes out to three percent of total respondents. But to extrapolate that number to the total student body, that is still 82 students who used Ecstasy in the last month. Chances are that those students aren't using Ecstasy once per month, but just happened to have used it the month the survey came out. A better estimation of chronic users may be the four percent who used it in the last week at the time of the survey. That's only .76 percent of the student body or 20 students, and that's also probably an overestimation. To compare it to other drugs, 15 percent of respondents smoke weed at least once per day, nine percent smoke weed multiple times per day. Thirty-two percent of surveyed students smoke weed at least once per week.
For perhaps a more comparable drug, 15 percent of respondents had tried cocaine at the time of the survey. Of that 15 percent, 16.7 percent had used it in the last month and 11.9 percent in the last week, or 2.5 percent and 1.8 percent of the total sample surveyed, respectively. The survey from the Office of Health Promotion had a sample size of about 500, but that number fluctuated by question as participants could skip questions. The sample size for general questions never dipped below 450, but for questions directed at a specific cohort, such as those who have used Molly, or Ecstasy in the case of their survey, the sample size ran from about 50 to 100.
From the numbers, Molly is clearly not the most popular drug. That honor belongs by a large margin to alcohol and marijuana. But it is more popular than cocaine and heroin, the latter which only .65 percent of the respondents have every tried.
The Molly Trade at Skidmore
"Conceptually, it is very popular," Parker says. "There are a lot of people who want to try it. Actively, I wouldn't say it is very hot, just because it is difficult to acquire it."
When Parker gets his Molly, he drives down to a friend in Providence, Rhode Island. He knows others who travel to New York City or order it online. He says the Silk Road was big until the FBI shut it down last year. On Nov. 6, 2014 the FBI effectively shut down Silk Road 2.0 after arresting its administrator. Regardless, most, he says, get it from "somewhere outside here."
Leahy wouldn't elaborate much on his trade, his source or his prices, but Parker says a gram of Molly usually sells at between $80 to $100.
Leahy reveals, though, that he doesn't get too many repeat customers. "I don't have regular customers, and I wouldn't sell it regularly to one person. It is both morally wrong and financially unnecessary." He also says that he finds there are two kinds of buyers, "those who take it for specific events, like concerts, and those who buy it with five or six of their friends and chill together for a night." He adds on, "you would get very, very strange looks if you showed up rolling at a random house party. That isn't really done."
Parker notes that demand definitely goes up around Fun Day. He also mentions demand increases when Pretty Lights puts on its annual show in Albany, the same show at which Watterson found himself experiencing something more than Molly.
None of those interviewed could provide an estimate of how many dealers there are at Skidmore, but as Parker says, "cool thing about the Skidmore drug trade—people are very willing to help each other out. People will go out of their way to find what you want."
The Skidmore Molly trade may not be particularly vibrant at the moment, but the infrastructure is there to facilitate an expanding market, and as Parker said, if people want it, they will be able to get it. Should this be a cause for concern?
In correspondence with David Karp, Dean of Campus life, he revealed that the "College's "response" [to Molly] is currently limited to prevention work out of the Office of Health Promotion."
According to Jen McDonald, Director of the Office of Health Promotion, "we do not currently have anything in place in the Health Promotion Office addressing Molly." A new survey they plan to send out next spring may be cause for reassessment, but as far as Molly goes, it is not at the top of the College's list of concerns or priorities, nor should it be.
According to Mr. Karp, "we haven’t had any Campus Safety Reports or hospital transports or students arrested for Molly as far as I can remember."
Molly has the potential to do serious harm, but only when taken in heavy doses in rapid succession, or when consumed chronically. Overheating, dehydration, and excessive hydration are other causes of concern, as is tainted Molly. The truth is, though, that the College can do little about this.
The Office of Health Promotions aggressively implemented a drug awareness and deterrence program this year. The campaign sought to redefine social norms by making students aware of their false perceptions about the amount of students consuming illicit drugs, a number most erroneously inflate. However, unlike alcohol, the main target of the social norms campaign, there is little peer pressure to take Molly.
Instead, the best thing the College could do is to provide concise information about Molly and what students can do to prevent serious repercussions, such as avoiding stacking, drinking enough, but not too much water, and purchasing test kits. The College doesn't need to condone Molly, nor should they, but they should tacitly recognize that this isn't a problem that they will be able to extirpate and instead direct efforts to keeping students as safe as possible. With the popularity of Molly rising, it will be all the more important that first-time users understand the safety hazards that accompany the ecstasy.
This report is not intended to support or condone the use of Molly. Molly remains an illicit drug, and as such, neither the author nor The Skidmore News supports its consumption. Rather, the purpose of this report is to provide a balanced, accurate and thoughtful examination of an emerging drug at Skidmore and among young adults.
Special thanks to Professors Hassan Lopez and Robert Hallock and Director Jennifer McDonald for their help with this report.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, we attributed to Professor Lopez the view that Molly is not "inherently dangerous." This was wrong. "Inherently" is a rather subjective and an unscientific term in this case, and it should be clarified that Professor Lopez believes Molly is one of the most dangerous recreation drugs and in no way condones its use. Apologies for this mistake.
Correction: We also erroneously called the "Social Norms Campaign," implemented by the Office of Health Promotion, the "First Six Weeks" program, which is something entirely different.
Clarification: Throughout the article, we equate Molly and Ecstasy as the same drug because they are both based on the same molecule, MDMA. However, the survey sent out by the Office of Health Promotion only asked respondents about the use of Ecstasy. Because not all respondents would have known Molly and Ecstasy are the same drug, results from the survey would not have fairly represented the true usage rate of Molly. Those who know Molly only as Molly would not have responded to having used Ecstasy in questions concerning Ecstasy.